Sermon for First Sunday in Lent, February 22, 2015
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Texts: James 1:12-18 and Mark 1:9-15
Sermon Theme: “Steadfast under Trial”
(Sources: Emphasis Online Illustrations and Commentaries; Concordia Journal, Winter 2015; Believer’s Commentary; “Dealing with Temptation,” christdeaf.org; “Trial, Test or Temptation,” bobrussell.org; “The Difference between Trials, Tests, and Temptation,” another Online commentary; original ideas; Pope Francis, “Their Blood Cries Out to the Lord”; Online Famous Quotations; Execution of 21 Coptic Prisoners, Houston Chronicle, Feb. 16, 2015.)
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Trials, tests, and temptations! — that’s what both of our sermon texts for today are about. Often, the same Greek word in the New Testament is translated as “trial” in one passage and “temptation” in another, because in the contexts of the verses they are not quite the same.
Although “temptation” is a very serious concept, we human beings often make light of it, saying things like, “The devil made me do it.” We all get a good laugh out of Mark Twain’s famous witticism, “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.” Yet, lung cancer isn’t very funny, is it? Perhaps Oscar Wilde and Charlie Brown were speaking for all of us when they said, “I can resist everything except temptation.”
Trials, tests, and temptations are not exactly the same thing, so we need to make some distinctions first before we look at our sermon texts, — the letter of James and the Gospel of Mark. I started out with James as my text and then added Mark to develop the message fully. A number of theologians have defined these three words and have pointed out distinctions, but I like Bob Russell’s differentiations the best.
According to Russell, “trials are difficult events that inevitably come to every life. Trials are unpleasant circumstances that occur as a result of living in a fallen world. There are viruses in the air, disappointments in friends and accidents on the road. The Apostle Peter wrote in 1 Peter 4:12-13, ‘Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed.’”
A “test” is a difficulty sent deliberately by God to reveal the depth of our character and ultimately bring out the best in us. Genesis 22:1 says, “God tested Abraham “ when He commanded him to sacrifice his son Isaac on the altar. God sometimes sends tests to mature us and enhance our witness. God’s purpose is that we pass the test and thereby gain confidence and provide a positive testimony of faithfulness in others.”
A “temptation” is sent by Satan to bring out our worst. The word “tempt” means to entice to do wrong by a promise of pleasure or gain” and is a deliberate enticement to sin. The devil’s goal is that you disobey God and are spiritually weakened. His desire is to eventually entrap you in sin so that you will suffer defeat and, ultimately, death.
While God temporarily permits Satan to tempt us, God is never the author of temptation and He always provides the means for us to be victorious over Satan’s crafty seductions. In today’s Gospel text, God permitted Jesus to be tempted by Satan so that Jesus could identify with our experience and demonstrate victory.
Today’s epistle from James begins with these words, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial.” In light of very recent tragic happenings to Christians in today’s world, this verse is just riveting!
Persecutions and attacks against Christians just for being Christians have been increasing in number and viciousness the past few months, and then on Sunday, February 15, ISIS militants beheaded 21 Coptic Christians after parading them in orange jump suits on the beach in Libya.
Laura King of the Los Angeles Times described it like this: “In the video, shot on a beach, the prisoners are marched into place by a line of knife-wielding captors. . . . Then they are forced to lie face down in the sand, and the executioners reach down and begin sawing their necks.” This unbelievably cruel and vicious torture and execution was done simply because these Coptic Christians were Christians.
Many Christian leaders responded to this immediately. Pope Francis echoed others when he said, “The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a blood that cries out to the Lord. It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts, or Lutherans, they are Christians. Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ. . . . These brothers and sisters were killed only because they confessed Christ . . . These martyrs belong to all Christians.”
The only words of the martyrs were, “Jesus, help me.” Their story is what James meant when he said, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial.”
This massacre was not a deliberate test by God; it was a trial. In our Gospel according to St. Mark, God the Father does TEST His Son Jesus by permitting Him to be TEMPTED by Satan.
But what about temptation with regard to you and me? The Apostle James in our Epistle says this, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and He Himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.”
Sinful desires give way to sinful deeds, which always end up killing the sinner. That’s why we fail the tests that come our way. There is only one reason why I sin. I want to. Sure, the devil likes to team up with people around me to stir up my sinful desires, but he can’t make me sin, and neither can anybody else. Sinful desires give way to sinful deeds, which always end up killing the sinner. Everybody fails the test! Death proves that.
In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” Martin Luther explains it this way: “God tempts no one. We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Although we are attacked by those things, we pray that we may finally overcome them and win the victory.”
The truth is, if we try to resist temptation to sin only in our own strength, we will fail. We need God’s help. God promises to help us to have victory over temptation as we use the resources He provides for us.
We know our own weaknesses. And sometimes we try very hard to resist temptation to a particular sin, and yet we fail. God gave us common sense and a reasoning ability, and He expects us to use it, — like this:
If you often give in to a certain sin when you are in a certain place, don’t go near that place!
If certain friends pull you down, don’t go with them.
If you regularly buy something that is destroying you morally, spiritually, physically, or financially, shop at a different store.
If something in your home tempts you beyond your ability to resist, get rid of it!
If your debt is out of control, cut up your credit cards.
To be sure, we can expect for there to be trials, tests, and temptations, in our lives, some small, some big. If for whatever reason we don’t use the resources God gives us, such as common sense and rational thought, to deal with the little temptations in life, how will we ever be able to handle the great trials life brings and the tests God sends us.
Our loving Savior went to the cross and suffered and died for our sins, so we have the comfort and joy of knowing we are saved by grace through faith. From the strength and courage we receive from His grace through our faith and the wisdom we find in His Word, may we be prepared to face all trials, tests, and temptations that come our way! Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.